Online Reviews: This Item Has Been Rated Five Out Of Five Stars

From Saturday, companies must disclose whether and how they check their online ratings. But that won't protect you from false reviews.

The camping lamp has thousands of reviews and many stars. It'll be good somehow. Quickly scanned a few more comments: great value for money, great battery, super warm light, say the commentators. Put the light in the shopping cart, click here, click there, bang, the new device is ordered for the approaching summer vacation.

Many people make their decisions in this way or something similar when they shop online: they choose one of a number of products - and also use how others have recently rated this article as a guide. The more current reviews, the more likely you are to read a review and the more often you order it. Customer ratings thus have a significant influence on a purchase decision.

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People often trust these reviews to be genuine. In fact, there are umpteen counterfeits: doctored, paid for and fictitious reviews of alleged purchases. The food in the restaurant, the shoes or even the new camping lamp sometimes turn out to be not as great as the reviews suggested.

Transparency and fines should help

That is about to change: A law will come into force that bundles a whole range of notification and information obligations in online trading. In the future, companies will have to provide information on whether and how they check that published ratings come from consumers who have actually used or purchased the goods or services ordered. Soliciting, submitting, or simply claiming to be from verified buyers, false reviews is expressly prohibited.

A novelty: Unlike before, not only companies or consumer advocates, but also private individuals can sue for damages. However, they have to prove themselves that they received false reviews when they signed the contract. The providers face a fine of up to 50,000 euros, for larger companies the fine can be up to four percent of the annual turnover. The new law actually comes at a good time: online shopping has been booming, at least since the beginning of the corona pandemic. 

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This also increases the incentive for companies to polish things up a bit online in order to perhaps achieve 4 stars instead of 3.5. It's not particularly expensive, from around ten euros you can buy a wrong rating. Or you ask friends or colleagues if they write a positive review. How high the number of unreported cases is can only be guessed at. The US company Amazon alone deleted 200 million fake product reviews in the Corona year 2020.

The EU Commission sees it similarly: At the beginning of this year, it examined online retailers - with the result that 144 of the 223 sites examined did not sufficiently ensure the authenticity of online customer reviews and consumers were not informed how reviews are collected and processed. Whether that will change with the new law remains to be seen. In any case, the expectations are not too high. 

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There is still no obligation to ensure that reviews are from real customers.  The companies only have to inform them whether they will check the reviews - and if so, how. Means: A disdainful "We do not check the reviews for their authenticity" could be enough to evade the procedure. Unfortunately, there are few indicators that can be used to identify fake reviews.

The Fallen Stars

The wrong ratings are tricky for the portals: If it turns out that a product was advertised with fake reviews, this naturally has a negative impact on both the seller and the platform on which this item was purchased: customers lose confidence and buy more hesitantly or not at all.

Consumers sometimes find little about how a comment is processed, what rules there are for writing it or how it is included in an overall rating – too little. Authors of negative comments are quickly threatened with a letter from a lawyer or compensation. That scares many.

Such a threatening backdrop is often not even necessary to prevent negative reviews. "Sometimes the text can be sent, but never appears on the website," "Thanks for taking part. Unfortunately, your rating does not meet our guidelines." 

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